Tag Archives: Jane Austen

Longbourn

cover image via GoodReads

cover image via GoodReads

There are easily more spin-offs of Pride and Prejudice than any other of Jane Austen’s novels. I despise the majority of these novels, so it was with carefully-guarded skepticism that I read all the raves about Jo Baker’s Longbourn. One critic at BookRiot hailed it as the “best new addition to the Austenverse”, and even Kirkus listed it as one of the best books of 2013. But somewhere in the midst of all the hype, I decided I had to lay aside my own prejudice against the greater canon of Austen spin-offs and give this book an honest try.

Longbourn is the story of the Bennet family’s servants. In her Author’s Note at the end of the book, Ms. Baker says: “When a meal is served in Pride and Prejudice, it has been prepared in Longbourn. When the Bennet girls enter a ball in Austen’s novel, they leave the carriage waiting in this one.”

This note probably would have gone over with me better if she’d couched her statements in the realm of imagination (“…imagine it has been prepared in Longbourn…”); as it was, it felt a bit presumptuous to me, so it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t see it until after reading the whole book. I tend to take issue on principle with anyone who tries to give life to the story “beyond the text”, which is my primary complaint about Austen spin-offs generally. But this sticking point, ironically, is ultimately why I forgave Ms. Baker and ended up enjoying Longbourn: the principal characters in Austen’s novel are mere sketches of supporting characters in Baker’s (the sole exception being Wickham, but I don’t like Wickham, so I don’t mind if she paints him in slightly greater detail as the lech that most readers already know him to be). I may not choose to think of her novel as being the Truth about the servants in Pride and Prejudice, but it’s an entertaining story, nonetheless.

Like Pride and Prejudice, Longbourn is a love story. It’s the story primarily of Sarah, the principal housemaid, and the Bennet’s mysterious new footman, James. It’s also the story of Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper and cook. Ms. Baker certainly did her research into the times; this novel is very much about below-stairs life — the cleansing of literally dirty laundry and the stink of smells and the servants’ chilblained hands.

My other primary complaint about most Austen spin-off books is that they sound desperately unintelligent to me: either they try to mimic Austen’s prose style and can’t carry it off successfully, or they use modern language without modernizing the setting and characters and it just doesn’t work. They’re all too often poorly-written, in other words. So I’m fully aware of the irony in announcing that my biggest complaint about Ms. Baker’s novel is that I frequently felt she was hitting me over the head with her PhD*.

For example, very early in the novel (page 21 of my copy), Sarah’s chilblained hands are washing the breakfast dishes and we learn that she “watched the glair whiten and lift.” If you, like me, had no idea what “glair” was, please allow me to enlighten you: it refers to the white of an egg or a concoction made therefrom. This may have been the first word I had to look up, but it was certainly not the last (cf. stour, gallinies, scrofulous, frowsty).

Normally I like having my vocabulary stretched by a novel; perhaps it was just the overall tone that in conjunction with the vocabulary seemed pretentious. Or the fact that the same author who used the word “clayey” (really!) also used the word “medicaments”. Or, and I realize this is the rabid Austenite coming out in me, using “calash”, an alternative spelling of caléche, when I would guess most of us are more familiar with the French spelling from Austen’s novels, or even “barouche” (a similar, if not identical, vehicle also already familiar from Austen’s novels). (I do realize it might have been an editorial rather than an authorial decision to use the Anglicized form of the word.)

But truthfully, my complaints about the book are small. Jo Baker did none of the things I despise: she didn’t try to reimagine Darcy and Elizabeth or re-tell their story, putting her own spin on it, and she didn’t try to imitate Jane Austen’s voice. No, Longbourn tells its own story. I think it was better when it was telling that story than when it was dwelling on the sights or smells in a scene — and it was rather more George Eliot in tone than Jane Austen, but I enjoyed it.

* After reading page 21, if anyone was to ask me how the book was they would have heard: “I feel like the author is hitting me over the head with her MFA!!!” Then I looked the author up online and discovered she actually has a PhD.

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We All Need More Jane Austen In Our Lives

Although I may have given you plenty of reason to believe otherwise, I’m not a fan of the many, many spinoffs from Jane Austen’s novels. To me, generally speaking, the novels are perfect as they are, and I think we should just leave it there.

But, don’t you love the idea of making blackberry jam with blackberries picked on Box Hill, of Emma fame? LondonEats just did exactly that, and the photo of the view looks like it was taken out of one of the movies! Jam from farmers’ market berries just wouldn’t taste the same.

And while I’m against spinoffs as a general rule, if you’re dramatizing some of my favorite stories of all time, well, that’s another story. Which brings me to…

EMMA APPROVED has started! Are you watching? I am! It’s the second web series by the same people who did the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, this time retelling the story of Emma. I was a latecomer to the whole Lizzie Bennet Diaries business — I only discovered this fantastic web series in August, and I unabashedly confess to some serious, serious binge-watching.

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Binge-watching with my very own Charlotte.

You’ll think to yourself, “Oh, the next episode is only 8 minutes,” but suddenly three hours have gone by. My sister says it’s a fascinating new way to tell stories, using the ways many of us document the stories of our lives today (Twitter, Facebook, and that whole mixed bag of social media as we know it).

And finally, I saw the Austenland movie in September. When I read the book ages ago, I thought it was only marginally entertaining, but it works really, really well as a movie (and they made the main character less irritating in the movie). It’s exactly the type of movie you want to have around as the days start getting shorter.

Have you come across any great Austen-related things lately?

Final Thoughts on Middlemarch

I promise I’ll be done talking about Middlemarch soon, guys. But, now that I’ve finished it and I have a month’s worth of perspective on the novel (which is to say I’ve been unabashedly reading Middlemarch‘s weight in books the New Yorker would sneer at), it’s time to revisit the reason I read it in the first place: Rebecca Mead’s article in the New Yorker circa February 2011, in which she compared George Eliot to Jane Austen and, after calling Jane Austen “cruel”, ultimately said that George Eliot’s work was superior.

I had bangs when I started reading Middlemarch.

I had bangs when I started reading Middlemarch.

Approximately two and a half years later, I finally feel like I can answer the questions that Ms. Mead’s article posed for me, which hinge around the following quote from her article:

Eliot admired Austen…but George Eliot…went on to surpass her precursor. She is as adept as Austen at the ironic depiction of high and middle-class society…But Eliot’s satire, unlike Austen’s, stops short of cruelty. She is inveterately magnanimous, even when it comes to her most flawed characters; her default authorial position is one of pity…A reader marvels at Jane Austen’s cleverness, but is astonished by George Eliot’s intelligence.

The short version of my answer is: yes and no.

On the question of Eliot’s having surpassed Austen: I suppose this is an obvious yes, if you judge “surpassing” to be established by the number of pages published, or the number of words used, or even the volume of their respective bodies of work. Eliot published 7 novels, various poems, and a number of other works; Austen published only 6 novels, 1 novella, and died with two novels unfinished. However, Austen’s works have an enduring charm and popularity that I wouldn’t judge Eliot’s works to be close to reaching.

On the question of Eliot’s inveterate magnanimity: On this point, Ms. Mead and I actually agree. Nearly all of even the most odious characters in Middlemarch are afforded authorial asides which sympathetically outline the defects of their personalities and their weaknesses, in a voice that resonates with pity. Even Casaubon’s insecurities she is able to describe sympathetically:

…a perpetual suspicious conjecture that the views entertained of him were not to his advantage…The tenacity with which he strove to hide this inward drama made it the more vivid for him; as we hear with the more keenness what we wish others not to hear…there was strong reason to be added, which he had not himself taken explicitly into account — namely, that he was not unmixedly adorable. He suspected this, however, as he suspected other things, without confessing it, and like the rest of us, felt how soothing it would have been to have a companion who would never find it out.

Or consider her depictions of Rosamund’s disappointments in married life:

The Lydgate with whom she had been in love had been a group of airy conditions for her, most of which had disappeared, while their place had been taken by every-day details which must be lived through slowly from hour to hour, not floated through with a rapid selection of favorable aspects.

That she made Rosamund’s shallowness simultaneously sympathetic and even relatable is certainly notable. And in all honesty, I did enjoy parts of Middlemarch very much: I learned many new words (sciolism, batrachian, energumen, to name a few); I sometimes laughed aloud; and occasionally I even stopped in my tracks to savor something she’d written:

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

But on the question of Austen appearing cruel by contrast to Eliot: I would still never describe my Jane Austen as being cruel.

“A reader marvels at Jane Austen’s cleverness, but is astonished by George Eliot’s intelligence.” Why does it seem like there is a value judgment attached to those words — clever versus intelligent? I would argue that both authors were both clever and intelligent, and that the crux of the argument is not which is better, but rather, can — even should — the two be compared?

To my way of thinking, George Eliot and Jane Austen wrote entirely different types of books. If you took one of Jane Austen’s novels, and loaded it down with social issues and a host of major and minor characters à la any Charles Dickens novel, and layered over the top of it a heavy authorial voice which occasionally verged on preachy regarding those social issues, you might get something like George Eliot.

Jane Austen was a storyteller. The point of her books is not to study social issues of the day, like the education of women, or the ills of poverty. In her books, she introduces us to characters, people we identify with and recognize in ourselves and around us even today, and tells us a story about those characters. I fear I will never understand the voices in this world which discount the good telling of a good story as being beneath, as being somehow less than, somehow inferior. Story is powerful. Stories teach.

I think A. L. Kennedy says it better than I ever could in one of her blogs on writing for the Guardian newspaper:

…because I have an interest, of course, in story — in pure story and how powerful it can be…they aim to transport, to suspend reality, and they do. They penetrate and delight and return us to ourselves, slightly altered, slightly more than we thought we could be… The story is both an unlooked-for beauty and a lovely misdirection and…it means that, for a while, we can believe in miracles and people who’ve never existed and a range of exhilarating and puzzling and moving possibilities… I like to stare at the undeniable power behind it all — the huge amoral force of story. We are the ones who chose to be dark or light, chose the stories we tell ourselves and others: in work, in play, in love…in all our lives.

Which seems like the best words, really, to end this on.

A Big Year for Birthdays

It’s a big year for birthdays (birthdays-slash-anniversaries), everyone. This year, my blog turns two (today, in fact — happy birthday, blog!), I will be turning twenty-nine (again), and we mark the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice.

Image via Jane Austen's Regency World

Image via Jane Austen’s Regency World

It will probably come as a surprise to only a few readers that I subscribe to Jane Austen’s Regency World, the official magazine of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England. The January/February issue is almost entirely devoted to Pride and Prejudice, and all sorts of other enormously interesting information, including the identity of the person of who won the auction for Jane Austen’s ring, Kelly Clarkson.

I must confess, I was a little surprised that it was Kelly Clarkson and not a mysterious-and-totally-imaginary secret admirer of mine who converses like Henry Tilney, believes that I could be “the Jane Austen of the Pacific Northwest”, and was saving the ring up as a special surprise present for my 30th (ahem, second 29th!) birthday…but I digress. It turns out a replica of that ring is totally the way to go (major hinting going on, for any mysterious secret admirers) because the United Kingdom declared the ring a national treasure, so Kelly Clarkson can never take it out of the UK.

But enough silliness. The main reason I’m writing tonight is regarding an article in this issue of JARW called “Choose Your Darcy”. That’s right. Amy Patterson, the author of the article, with whom I would very much like to take a turn about the room as well as tea, compares all the different actors who’ve played Mr. Darcy on the silver screen, and, most importantly, comes up with the right answer for who did so best.

Her favorite (and mine)? David Rintoul. Mr. Rintoul plays Mr. Darcy in a so-faithful-to-the-book-you-can-practically-read-along version of Pride and Prejudice that first aired in 1979. I realize I will be alienating many of my friends and probably 90 percent of the internet by not choosing Colin Firth, and my sister by not choosing Matthew MacFadyen, but as far as choosing a Mr. Darcy that most faithfully represents the Mr. Darcy of Jane Austen’s book and of my imagination, I too have to go with David Rintoul.

The 1979 version is not pretty. The costumes seemed quite wretched. But what can I say? Give me a version I can almost read along with and I’m happy, even if Elizabeth is really prettier than Jane. Also, it’s only four hours, instead of a whopping six, largely because it doesn’t insert scenes that Austen never wrote of Darcy emerging wet-shirted from the lake in front of Pemberley, and used only one or two scenes of Elizabeth walking to communicate her fondness of that activity.

Matthew MacFadyen’s portrayal (circa 2005) is…darned sexy. The best that one can say of that 2005 version is to remark on Matthew MacFadyen’s sexiness, and the fact that it’s one movie long. A faithful representation of the book, it is not (“My pearl for Sundays?” – heaven, give me strength!). Occasionally my sister and I watch the movie together-in-time, if not location, and madly text each other – because this is arguably the most romantic of the versions…and Matthew MacFadyen…and it can be watched in two hours or less, especially if you fast forward liberally, like we sometimes do.

We weren't quite at the same part of the movie here. Nonetheless, enthusiastic.

We weren’t quite at the same part of the movie here. Nonetheless, enthusiastic.

Cut from the image above was my saying something along the lines of “Dang. Matthew MacFadyen.” We aren’t always totally frivolous, either; here you find us actually discussing the story itself:

In between swoons, we discuss authorial decision making.

In between swoons, we discuss authorial decision making.

I just can’t give “best Darcy” to Colin Firth, because, much as I respect Mr. Firth as an actor and like his looks, he just wasn’t the Darcy of the book; he brought too much of the stock “awkward Englishman” to the role. Ms. Patterson says it best in her article in JARW: “David Rintoul, my Mr Darcy, gets closer than any other to capturing the essence of this wonderful, complicated, shy, angry and passionate hero.”

I’ll step down off my soapbox now. Which actor’s portrayal of Mr. Darcy is your favorite?